The Migration of Symbols
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Pages (PDF): 254
Publication Date: 1910
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Originally published in 1891 in French, this book covers a huge web of interchangeable symbols, which are found over a wide range of cultures through the Near East, India, Europe, and further abroad, notably in Mesoamerica. He attempts to explain the widespread use of symbols such as the Swastika, the Tree of Life, the Winged Globe, the Trident and the Caduceus. The author demonstrates that the same symbol can have different interpretations in different cultures and at different times. Such is the case with the swastika, which today is obviously associated with absolute evil, but which has been used historically as a symbol of the Sun's yearly path, and regarded as a good-luck symbol, even to this day, in the far East.
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The variety of symbols seems at first to be as boundless as the combinations of the human imagination. It is not uncommon, however, to discover the same symbolical figures amongst races the furthest apart. These coincidences can hardly be explained by chance, like the combinations of the kaleidoscope. Except in the case of symbols found amongst peoples who belong to the same race, and who, consequently, may have carried away from their common cradle certain elements of their respective symbolism, there are only two possible solutions: either these analogous images have been conceived independently, in virtue of a law of the human mind, or else they have passed from one country to another by a process of borrowing.
There exists a symbolism so natural that, after the manner of certain implements peculiar to the stone ages, it does not belong to any definite region or race, but constitutes a characteristic feature of humanity in a certain phase of development.
To this category belong, for example, the representations of the sun by a disc or radiating face, of the moon by a crescent, of the air by birds, of the water by fishes, also by a wavy line, and so forth.
Perhaps certain more complicated analogies should be added to these, such as the symbolizing of the different phases of human existence by the life of the tree, the generative forces of nature by phallic emblems, the divine triads, and generally every triple combination whose members are equal, by the equilateral triangle, and, lastly, the four main directions of space by a cross.
What theories have not been built upon the existence of the equilateral cross as an object of veneration amongst nearly all the races of the Old and the New World! Of late years orthodox writers have protested with good reason against the claim of attributing a pagan origin to the Cross of the Christians because earlier creeds had included cruciform signs in their symbolism. And the same objection might be urged against those who seek for Christian infiltrations in certain other religions under the pretext that they possess the sign of the Redemption.
When the Spaniards took possession of Central America, they found in the native temples real Crosses, which were regarded as the symbol, sometimes of a divinity at once terrible and beneficent —Tlaloc, sometimes of a civilizing hero, white and bearded—Quetzacoalt, stated by tradition to have come from the East. They concluded from this that the Cross had reached the Toltecs through Christian missions of which all trace was lost; and, as legend must always fix upon a name, they gave the honour to St. Thomas, the legendary apostle of all the Indies. Although this proposition has again found defenders in recent congresses of Americanists, it may be regarded as irrevocably condemned. It has been ascertained beyond all possibility of future doubt that the Cross of pre-Columbian America is a kind of compass card, that it represents the four quarters whence comes the rain, or rather the four main winds which bring rain, and that it thus became the symbol of the god Tlaloc, the dispenser of the celestial waters, and, lastly, of the mythical personage known by the name of Quetzacoalt.
By a similar process of reasoning the Assyrians were led to represent by an equilateral cross their god of the sky, Anu. The ideogram of this god is formed by four cruciform characters which radiate at right angles from the circle or lozenge denoting the sun in the cuneiform inscriptions.
Are we to conclude from this that all these gibbet-crosses have the same origin and the same aim? That would be a rather hasty conclusion. The symbolical signification of the tau is explained by its resemblance to the Key of Life or crux ansata of Egypt, so widely diffused throughout all Western Asia. The Double Hammer of Thor and of Tarann is a symbol of the lightning, and, for this reason, could not fail to represent the vivifying forces of the storm, according to the tradition common among the Indo-European nations. Similarly, if in pre-Columbian America, the Cross became an emblem of fertility, it is, as we have seen, because it represents the rain-god. As for the early Christians, if they made of the Cross a symbol of life, it is especially in the spiritual sense; and, if they sometimes gave it the form of the palibulum, it was because such was the instrument employed among the Romans in the punishment by crucifixion.
In the mythology of primitive nations the contest between the sky, or sun, and the clouds is frequently represented by a fight between an eagle and a serpent. This subject has been treated more than once in ancient art. Already in the Homeric ages it had become a symbol of victory, for we are told in the Iliad that the Trojans were on the point of abandoning the assault on the Greek entrenchments through having seen an eagle which held a serpent in its claws take flight, being wounded by its prey. Now according to the tradition of the Aztecs, the founding of Mexico is said to have been resolved on owing to the apparition of an eagle which, perched upon an agave, and with wings outstretched towards the rising sun, held a serpent in its talons. The first conquerors of Mexico saw therein an emblem of future greatness, and to the present day this emblem figures in the arms of the capital. Yet it is unlikely that the Aztecs had read Homer.
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